With the debate about the mosque near ground zero heating up I decided to give this space to a dear friend and a couregous activist Anya Cordell, a recent winner of the Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award.
Her letter appeared recently in the blog of William Spear in the Huffington Post :
You can read more from and about Anya Cordell’s work at:
I recently received a thoughtful letter from a student and friend, Anya Cordell, winner of the 2010 Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award. Her courageous work following the World Trade Center disaster more than qualifies her to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero. I share it here for HuffPo readers, with thanks to Anya for her work and efforts.
In relation to your work on trauma, I’ve been wondering about your response to the multiple traumas related to 9/11 and lower Manhattan; the victims on the planes and on the ground, the rescue workers, the witnesses on the scene and watching on screens (all of us), and Muslims the world over who became instantly associated with something as horrifying and destructive as this event. As you know, I received the 2010 Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award from The Anne Frank Center USA (in lower Manhattan ) for my work against the designating of any group as “Other.” At this time of controversy surrounding the Islamic Cultural Center in New York, I thought I’d share my reflections with you and your audience.
When I think about the issue of “sacred ground” at the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York, and what should occur on or around it, I think about the innumerable “ground zeroes” around the world, where loved ones of families we never hear of have died in unspeakable violence. I think about what monuments or markers do, or do not, exist to commemorate where they fell or burned or disintegrated. Despite the unspeakable trauma in New York, it strikes me as quite a luxury to be able to memorialize and sanctify such ground, a luxury afforded to only a very few grieving families, the world over.
What we call New York ‘s “ground zero” was prime real estate in the world’s most powerful country, with gleaming, tall, expensive buildings which were destroyed in a horrifically cruel and shocking way. This certainly calls us to respond in an appropriate fashion, and it is hard to argue with any grieving, traumatized person whose loved one disappeared that day; however, I’m quite certain that most scenes of bombings, explosions, terrorism, hate crimes and wars, throughout the world, are fairly quickly reclaimed by the exigencies of daily life, the need to rebuild and to make a living, and by life moving forward, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
After September 11, a number of innocent men, not just Muslim or Arab, but also Sikh, Hindu, South Asian, and others, were murdered in the U.S. by self-avowed ‘patriot’ vigilantes. I know the families of some of these victims. The widow of one works every day standing exactly where her husband was shot in cold blood, behind the counter of the service station he ran. There is no hushed and sacred ground there, except for an instant when momentary wisps of incense her father lights in the doorway each day fade away, just before the customers tramp through to pay for their gas, cigarettes, lottery tickets and sodas. Customers do remember and speak of the murdered man who was the soul of generosity — a U.S. citizen who was Hindu, from India, who would let you drive away with a tank of gas and the promise that you’d pay him back if you didn’t have money in your wallet that day. I suppose their memory is his memorial. Similarly, a Sikh family works every day where their loved one was slain, in Mesa, Arizona on September 15, 2001 by a killer who had vowed to “kill the ragheads responsible for 9/11,” and instead murdered a sweet man wearing a turban as a tenet of his Sikh faith.
There is no memorial at the intersection where I live, where a black neighbor, was gunned down by a white supremacist in 1999, although we did organize nightly walks from the site, which folks attended for months, sometimes accompanied by the victim’s wife and children, two of whom witnessed their father’s shooting. There is a slight imprint of a leaf in the cement curb where he fell, (I think the curb was set before the murder), a coincidence that feels to me a tiny bit meaningful.
These are my thoughts when I read of the families of some of those who died in lower Manhattan, wanting “ground zero” and its environs (how far?) to be hallowed in a way that only the most privileged nations can afford. Perfectly innocent people die daily as victims of what is referred to as “collateral damage” in dusty parts of the globe. Children disintegrate stumbling across minefields. All manner of mayhem and terrorism destroy lives, but somehow we imagine that those who were lucky enough to have lived and worked in New York apparently stand (figuratively, no longer literally) far apart from these multitudes of others, who were equally innocent, whose deaths were equally shocking, whose families loved them just as much and who also clawed at earth with bare hands trying desperately to rescue and recover them.
My further reflections on the controversy grow out of my work around what I call “appearance-ism” (appearance-based judging of ourselves and others), which I have tried so ardently to address.
Once a fashion and beauty obsessed girl, I grew to realize that fashionable attitudes can hold sway as much as, and far more destructively, than the dictates of frivolous clothing and makeup trends. The media which can teach us which body shapes, sizes and colors to value, can also train us to accept particular and sometimes very peculiar ideas. But just because something is repeated, or shouted, does not make it true. Propaganda, however, can and does take hold and has, throughout history, made some people very rich, powerful and destructive and has subjugated and decimated others.
Eventually, I realized that I did not want to be judged, or judge others, on the basis of appearance and stereotypes. Everyone is much more complex than any snap judgment we may make about them on the basis of appearance, age, ethnicity, religion, etc. I began to speak and write about appearance-ism, racism, stereotyping, teasing, bullying, and hate crimes. Everyone understands some aspect of the injustice of appearance-ism, and this common experience, I’ve discovered, can be a touchstone to help people appreciate the unfairness of all sorts of biases we have been taught.
After 9/11 I felt compelled to reach out to the innocent families I mentioned above, and in the years since, I’ve watched the anti-Muslim drumbeat intensify in ways that impact multitudes of innocent people. All the Muslims I know are traumatized by the stereotyping and characterizations that are now rampant. Rather than celebrating 9/11 (as they have been accused), they despair of it. All of them fear; children being taunted and bullied, adults being more vulnerable in public and in the workplace. They feel constant suspicion directed at them as they try to live their lives while absorbing the shame and blame being heaped on all Muslims, worldwide. They are between a rock and a hard place, damned for whatever they do or don’t do. How many of those who yell about Muslims, I wonder, have ever met a Muslim, let alone had a Muslim guest in their living room, or set foot in a mosque or a Muslim person’s home?
Following a presentation, a student once whispered to me, “Thank you so much for your program. I’m Muslim, but no one here knows it.” That sent chills down my spine, reminding me of historic times when people needed to try to “pass” to be safe. As a Jewish woman, the moment made me think of Anne Frank, and the disparity between the Nazi stereotypes of Jews, and the reality of the innocents who were slaughtered. It also made me think of the heroic non-Jewish friends who supported Anne’s family in hiding, and the necessity of crossing divides to be allies for one another.
Like all who commit such atrocities, the savage people who demolished the towers had no idea whatsoever about the people they destroyed. They didn’t care to know anything about them. They accepted sweeping generalizations, thus dismissing them entirely.
How, then, does making blanket statements about an enormous, extraordinarily diverse group — Muslims — serve as a contradiction to all the individual family tragedies that were engendered by the 9/11 attacks? Isn’t the most appropriate way to stand against wanton, wholesale destruction of broad categories of people, to not engage in categorizing groups at large; to not listen to smears, to fight against demagoguery, to go out of our way to get to know as many individuals as possible, to be thoughtful, reasonable, patient and careful in our thinking about one another?
I would trust my Muslim and Hindu and Sikh friends with my life. I’m sure there are some Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Christians and others who might terrify me. In my experience there are wonderful people of all faiths, who claim their religion has taught them their values, and awful people of all faiths who also claim their religion has taught them their values. I am much more interested in meeting people than in labeling them.
People build their houses of worship, schools and community centers and create all manner of organizations, and it is all very messy and complicated. I am certain that if we could have interviewed, in depth, every person who died a victim at 9/11’s “ground zero,” we would be left with an equally complicated collection of beliefs, worldviews and value systems, which we cannot possibly honor, by making wholesale decrees about a faith adhered to by one fifth of the people on this planet.
Anya Cordell, Author, RACE: An OPEN & SHUT Case